Museums USA

US museums' about-face on restitution

Institutions take a proactive approach to problem antiquities, but critics want to see more information online

A museum in Denver went the extra mile last month, paying to return 30 wooden totems that it alerted the Kenya government about

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science repatriated 30 memorial totems to the National Museums of Kenya last month. The restitution, which was initiated and funded by the Colorado institution, represents a larger shift in the way US museums approach objects with questionable provenance. Such a proactive approach would have been unimaginable two decades ago.

In 2003, a curator at the Denver museum came across a report about the illicit trade of the totems, called vigango, which have been erected by the Mijikenda people of Kenya for generations to honour their ancestors. No federal or international law forbids museums from owning vigango and Kenyan law does not prohibit their sale. But the Denver museum was “convinced by research that showed that the vigango are communally owned property, and without the consent of the entire community they are by definition stolen,” says Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, the museum’s curator of anthropology.

For five years he called and sent letters to the Kenyan government expressing the museum’s desire to return the vigango. When the government finally responded, the museum insisted on footing the more-than-$10,000 bill to ship the totems back to Kenya, despite the government’s offer to pay.

Other museums are increasingly proactive. “I think ‘sea change’ is too gentle a word,” says Kaywin Feldman, the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). “It’s been a landslide change in collecting policy, procedures and ethics,” she says. The MIA returned an ancient Greek krater to the Italian government in 2011 after reviewing new evidence that it had been illegally excavated. “I’ve been a director for 20 years. Then the philosophy was: you do whatever it takes to get a great object. Now it’s completely different.”

In January 2013, the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) revised its rules, requiring its 217 member museums to post details of any new acquisition of antiquities that lacks ironclad provenance stretching back to 1970, along with an image. In the past year, museum purchases of ancient art “have slowed to a trickle”, says Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) and the chair of the AAMD task force on archaeological material and ancient art. Feldman admits that some potential donors are frustrated and dealers “very frustrated”.

Curators of provenance

Some institutions are setting the bar even higher. The MIA, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others, employ full-time provenance researchers to vet potential acquisitions and fill gaps in museum records. Last year, the Boston museum returned a bronze statuette of Mercury to the Musée de la Chartreuse in Douai, France, after its researcher uncovered evidence that it had been stolen in 1901.

“I’m not eager to sit back and wait for the mail, if I’m suspicious about something,” Maxwell Anderson says. In 2012, the Dallas museum voluntarily returned an ancient marble mosaic to Turkey after it decided the work was probably stolen from an archaeological site. “In the past museums would not have acted without concrete evidence that would stand up in a court of law,” Anderson says. “Today museums are amenable to looking at persuasive circumstantial evidence.”

Some critics feel US museums are now too willing to relinquish ownership. That said, the Saint Louis Museum of Art is contesting a claim from Egypt. On 13 January it returned to court to defend its right to keep the Ka Nefer Nefer mask it acquired in 1998. A district court ruled in 2012 that there was insufficient proof that the mask had been stolen from Egypt and illegally imported to the US. The US Justice Department is now seeking to present new evidence that the mask was taken from an Egyptian government storeroom in the late 1960s or early 1970s. A spokesman for the museum says its “position on its legal ownership of the mask has not changed”.

Others say US museums still need to be more open about the problem antiquities they have bought or been given. Catalogue information can be minimal. David Gill, the British archaeologist and author of the blog Looting Matters, says: “We need to be more rigorous with documentation.” Last month archeologists raised questions about Fordham University’s acquisition of nine early Christian mosaics from an anonymous donor. Inscriptions link the mosaics to a church near Apamea, Syria, which has recently been subject to extensive looting. According to Fordham, documents show that the donor’s family legally acquired the mosaics in 1972. Gill says documentation cannot always be accepted at face value as unscrupulous dealers have swopped or falsified paperwork. Concern expressed on social media and the website Chasing Aphrodite encouraged the university to release more information.

Scepticism surrounding problem objects is only likely to increase as institutions respond to pressure to post full provenance records online. “Once provenance information becomes public, it provides a means for source nations and claimants to look for objects that may have been looted,” says Victoria Reed, the curator of provenance at the Boston MFA.

“I am convinced that a lot more objects are going to be returned because indigenous people everywhere are on the internet,” says the anthropologist Monica Uvardy. “They can see in an instant what museums are doing and what other peoples are doing. And they want their things back.”

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